“You’ve got stuck in a moment and you can’t get out of it.” – U2
Walled up in Wayne Manor with scraggly facial hair, a cane, and endless depths of remorse, Bruce Wayne is a defeated man. He’s stuck in a moment eight years ago, and even an energy project that might have given him new purpose has been mothballed. When he visits Wayne Tower, Lucius Fox jokes that he’s come “out of cryostasis”. Left without his earthly love, and having sacrificed his role as Batman, he’s an empty vessel with seemingly nothing left. We talked about the overarching themes of The Dark Knight Rises in our spoiler-free video review, but now we’ll careen into SPOILER territory (you’ve been duly warned) with these follow-up posts by looking individually at Alfred, Bruce, Gordon, Blake and Selina.
While most of us aren’t billionaires suffering the loss of a dead loved one as well as our “superhero” identity, many of us have been at this place in life where we don’t know who we are, or what we have to live for. Whatever earthly activities or people we’ve built our life and meaning upon have faded or failed and we’re left adrift, lost in a confusion of identity. Bruce is also stuck because he’s been deceived about Rachel’s last conclusions and decisions, and so out of something akin to “Catholic guilt” he’s placed himself in his own form of purgatory and assumes it’s a permanent condition from which he’ll never emerge.
Only when thieves come to his doorstep and steal his fingerprints, appropriating his “identity” (whatever is left of it) is Wayne spurred out of his inaction.
Selina Kyle: “Yeah? Who are you pretending to be?”
Bruce Wayne: “Bruce Wayne, eccentric billionaire.”
Rachel Dawes understood Bruce’s identity problems: he’d adopted he Batman persona and cloaked his aching soul in the costume, the symbol. “Bruce Wayne” had never really returned from overseas, and perhaps never HAD an identity since his parents were stolen from him as a child. She had known that boy, with his childlike wonder, and even though Bruce came back to Gotham and let his “actions define him”, he didn’t really have a plan for living and lacked key components of what it meant to be a functional human. He’d channeled his fear, focused it, let his “enemies share his dread”… but had he every truly faced it? Did a test by a mentor like Ra’s Al Ghul really count?
Physically, in Nolan’s more “real” world we find that Bruce, much like a boxer or other athlete, has all but destroyed his body and his middle-aged body with concussive damage, no more cartilage in his knees, and worse. Unlike our comic book Batman, Bruce has a finite span to his career. In The Dark Knight he hoped Harvey would make him obsolete and able to retire, and yet he never had a plan to actually live post-retirement, other than some vague vision of life with Rachel. She was his “functional savior”, his happily ever after plan, and with her gone, so is his soul.
Harvey Dent said “it’s always darkest before the dawn”, and in keeping with that notion the narrative has to amplify things before they get better. Bruce’s attempts to get back on the horse (or Batpod) prove ultimately lacking, feeble, and he winds up even more damaged. Instead of a bum knee and self-imposed exile, he has a damaged back and imprisonment by the literal Bane of his existence.
Bruce Wayne: “Torture?”
Bane: Yes. “But not of your body… Of your soul.”
Author Kurt Vonnegut, once said there was only ONE plot (a notion The Amazing Spider-man also mentions) and Vonnegut called it “man in a hole”. It’s a concept very near and dear to the heart of Cinemagogue. It’s almost too obvious, then, that this third act of Nolan’s trilogy becomes a hero’s journey where the floundering and failing Bruce finds himself literally in a hole, staring up at the sun, wondering if there is escape. Bane explains there is no worse torment than to see and almost grasp hope, yet not attain it. He’s transitioned from purgatory to hell, and the assumption is that this will break his spirit utterly. It’s a great metaphor for life under the sun.
However, he’s been down a hole before: it’s doubtful Bane knew the story of Bruce falling down the well, or the subsequent rescue by his father. It’s doubtful Bane could understand or appreciate how Thomas Wayne’s passion for Gotham – for its good, for its healing - inspired Bruce to seek it’s salvation and redeem it in his own way. Memories of a loving father and a city in need spur Bruce to strive again, to truly struggle, and to grapple with the nature of fear.
We live in a culture where we speak platitudes like “the only thing we have to fear is fear itself“. We see fear as a problem, something to always be overcome. Dune tells us “fear is the mind-killer”. Yoda tells us “fear is the path to the dark side”. Bruce argues similarly that he’s not afraid, he’s simply “angry”, yet he fails again and again to make the jump and escape the prison with the rope around his waist. The doctor in the prison has to remind him that some fear is good, that the right kind of fear motivates us, that a proper fear is what drives us. This story by Nolan and Goyer presents a counter-cultural view of fear.
Bruce isn’t afraid to die in regard for his own life, but he wants to live to be a help for Gotham. He fears for his city because he cares about it. His fear is ultimately for the welfare of others and his inability to help it, to be shackled like Jacob Marley in A Christmas Carol, beyond the inability to serve those in need.
Blind Prisoner: “Then make the jump.”
Bruce Wayne: “How?”
Blind Prisoner: “As the child did. Without the rope.”
The film gives us a flashback to a child making the jump, and also flashes back to a loving father telling Bruce “why we fall”. The seemingly washed-up Wayne must take on the fear, fervor, and faith of a child to make the leap. It’s not dissimilar to the step Indiana Jones takes in The Last Crusade, a selfless jump over the abyss with a willingness to sacrifice one’s self in order to help others. Jones did it to save his father, whereas Bruce does it to honor the heart of his father. The blind prisoner tells Bruce that maybe “your fear will find you”. As we are all confronted by metaphorical leaps in our own lives, is it fear - or something else - that we hope will find us in that moment, support us, stretch us, give us a firm foothold?
The Christian faith is a curious and unique juxtapostion of fear, faith, love and identity that mirrors this film in some ways. Instead of fear being bad, it is simply to be focused. We don’t fear the material things, we don’t fear death, we only fear God, and when that proper fear is founded in him it’s followed by faith that he actully chooses to support us, equip us, to carry us across the chasm of death and damnation this cursed life holds even though we don’t deserve it. Similarly, the Bible likens this faith to that of a child: that if we wish to ascend into the sun from the pit of this existence, we have to do it “as the child did.”
“Truly, I say to you, unless you turn and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.” – Matthew 18:3
This pointy-eared hero’s journey rolls into its third and final act with the man “out of the hole”, equipped to emulate the form of a savior (as discussed in our video review), to sacrifice himself in service to others, to lay down his life as both “Bruce Wayne” and “the Batman” and finally – before the credits roll – we see this transformed man enjoying new life with a new identity. He also realizes that he’s not the ultimate savior of Gotham (or any city) and replicates himself, an imitator of a true savior inspiring others to imitate that example once he’s gone. He’s not the center of the story, merely one player in it. Finally, in the final scene of Bruce’s journey he’s with a woman, but unlike Rachel she’s not his salvation, not his “functional savior” or new identity. Instead, she’s someone who was inspired by him, emulated him, and needed a transformed life as much or more than he did (but more on Selina in a future post).
Bruce’s journey in The Dark Knight Rises is a great conversation starter:
Are you – or is someone you know – “stuck in a moment” similar to Bruce?
Have we lost our ”identity”?
Did we put that identity in earthly, fading, fallible things or people?
How do we climb out of that hole?
What does healthy fear and/or faith look like?
Can we experience it again, as children do? Can we make that leap?
Rich Bruce Wayne feels tired and old at the beginning of the film and experiences a rekindling. Near the end of his life, rich but weary King Solomon addressed our childlike vigor and fear in a way I think says it best, and some of the scenes in The Dark Knight Rises resonate as I read this passage. I hope we all come to a right understanding of fear and faith before we’re captured and face the true pit that may await us.
“Remember also your Creator in the days of your youth, before the evil days come and the years draw near of which you will say, “I have no pleasure in them”; before the sun and the light and the moon and the stars are darkened and the clouds return after the rain, in the day when the keepers of the house tremble, and the strong men are bent, and the grinders cease because they are few, and those who look through the windows are dimmed, and the doors on the street are shut… and the dust returns to the earth as it was, and the spirit returns to God who gave it… Fear God and keep his commandments, for this is the whole duty of man. For God will bring every deed into judgment, with every secret thing, whether good or evil.” – Ecclesiastes 12
Police Commissioner James Gordon is also weary, and we’ll examine him in the next post.